Sarah Mathew, 14, a freshman at Centreville High School, never felt comfortable talking in front of her class. A self-described introvert, Mathew would always get nervous before a big presentation in front of her peers.
But for the past year, she has passed on social and school activities to spend one Friday night each month facing her fear and just talking. She talks about her interests. She talks about her beliefs. She talks about her passions.
MATHEW IS a member of the Washington Young Speakers Club, an upstart nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the public speaking and leadership skills of area students ages 6-16.
The organization, which started in late 2005 as a young speaker’s club at St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Church in Fairfax, is the brainchild of Abe George, a father of two who looked for a public speaking training program for his sons before taking the matter into his own hands.
“I started [the WYSC] after realizing that there is no organization in the area that provides this unique training to students of this age group,” said George, the former vice president of education for the Springfield chapter of Toastmasters, an organization that provides public speaking training for adults — but only adults.
George knew the program would only be effective if it could benefit students all across the area, which meant extending it outside the church walls.
“For the growth of the organization, it was necessary to make it a secular organization and associate it with the school systems,” George said. “So we removed the association with the church and organized Washington Young Speakers Club as a nonprofit organization incorporated in the state of Virginia.”
The WYSC, which meets the third Friday of each month, provides students with public speaking training in a fun and pressure-free environment. Participants decide what type of presentation they will give each session — from a traditional speech to a comedy routine to a freestyle format — and choose their topic as well.
“Unless the program is beneficial and fun to participate, students will not get motivated to join and continue in the program,” George said. “Hence, I developed a combination of different types of performances they can do at each session depending on their interest.”
George, also a member of the Washington International Speakers Bureau, gives detailed feedback to each participant at the end of the session. Parents who choose to stay also serve as judges and offer their critiques to the students. Prizes are awarded for the best speeches based on the judges’ scores.
In addition, George and other experts in the field provide lessons on such things as posture, tone, eye contact, and — perhaps the most useful for the teen sect — removing “like” and “um” from their speech vocabulary. But one of the most important elements of the program, according to George, is finding what works for each student.
“I MOLD the programs to fit the needs of the participants — one size fits all will not work here,” George said. “I give them a focus area for each session to improve their on-stage skills.”
Mathew, who gave a speech titled “My Passions” at the March 16 meeting, has seen a vast improvement in her speaking skills, both in front of an audience and socially.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in front of the class and I can share my ideas with people,” Mathew said. “Even if I’m just talking to people, I feel more comfortable and open.”
While Mathew describes herself as shy and quiet, the more extroverted participants have witnessed a difference as well.
Jacob George, a 13-year-old eighth- grader at Linear Middle School, was a charter member of the WYSC since his father is the president and founder.
At last week’s meeting, Jacob, who enjoys discussing his opinions on political topics, did a comedy routine about the effect technology has had on kitchen appliances.
Jacob, who scoffed noticeably when asked if he was shy, has seen an improvement in several elements of his speaking abilities, even if his comfort level hasn’t changed.
“I can look more at the audience and I don’t stutter anymore,” Jacob said.
Because the organization started as a church group, most of the participants already know each other and feel comfortable speaking in front of one another. While this may be beneficial to current participants, it may also be the reason the organization hasn’t expanded as much as George had originally hoped. There are currently 30 students in the program from various area schools, but nearly all of them are from the church where the organization started.
Members have done their part in the marketing of the group, encouraging their friends to attend meetings. But the program has been met with mixed reactions from students, who would rather spend their Friday nights at social events — doing a different kind of talking.
“I’ve told a lot of people, but they have a lot of other activities going on,” Jacob said. “Since this is new, they don’t really think it’s important and they stop coming.”
GEORGE HAS relied mostly on word-on-mouth advertising thus far, but has started to be more direct with the marketing of the group. He has sent out e-mail brochures, contacted local Parent Teacher Associations, and started publishing a web-magazine called “The Young Leader.”
The real challenge, at least according to Jacob, is getting people in the door. Once they give the program a chance, they usually come back.
“When new people come, you can see how nervous they are,” Jacob said. “But after a few times, they get comfortable around us.”
The next meeting of the WYSC is April 20 at the Sully District Governmental Center in Chantilly. For more information, contact Abe George at email@example.com or visit www.washingtonysc.org.